The Apartments Most in Need of a Spring Cleaning

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Ah, spring, the time when warm temperatures return, the outdoors is suddenly full of possibility instead of darkness and coat-huddling misery, and your apartment feels even more claustrophobic and gross than usual. Yes, it's time for spring cleaning, a not-particularly-notable occurrence in urban, suburban, and rural habitats alike. But recently, as this writer was enjoying cocktails, our city-dwelling companion revealed a horrifying secret: His apartment was so repugnant, he confessed, that it had actually led to the speedy demise of what might have become a relationship—or at least a physical liaison of some sort. "I brought home an acquaintance," he said, sheepishly. "She came in the door and looked dazed, horrified. The apartment was in particularly bad shape. We made out for like two minutes, standing on dirty laundry. Without pretense or excuse, she was just like, "I have to go.' We have not spoken since."

Wait. Is this a thing that happens? Might it even be... common among urban types? Apartments as relationship-killers? An investigation among our peers uncovered an array of problematic domestic situations. Maybe these aren't hoarders-level atrocities, but they do exist, and are therefore either assurance that perhaps your apartment is not actually that filthy or -- if these tales have a familiar ring -- reassurance that you are not alone. 

Recommended Reading

Some might call it  "secret single behaviors," but really, they are more than that. Not exactly quirky, they are just, well, sort of unclean, messy...or having to do with vermin. "I put all my dirty clothes into a suitcase and lie that I was traveling all week if I accidentally take someone home," said one twentysomething guy who works in media (suitcase at right). A thirtysomething writer confessed about "a friend": "His apartment somehow had some dead rats. He didn't know where they were -- maybe inside the walls -- and he couldn't get rid of the smell. He brought a woman home and, before she arrived, sprayed the place with Febreze, but the smell was unmistakable. They ended up having a good time, but the whole night they couldn't escape the smell." 

A college student admitted that his girlfriend would never come over because of his apartment's rodent problem. Worse than rodents, perhaps, is the story shared by a 32-year-old neuroscientist, who said that a college dorm he occasionally visited was so infested with roaches—"you could smell it from entering the building" -- that was so horrible the roaches somehow killed themselves: "By the time the students realized they had roaches, the apartment funk had already killed the bugs," he says, leaving "a bunch of dead roaches under the sink."

Then there's the story of the fortysomething businessman who kept a pot of gumbo in his kitchen sink for so long that when the date he'd originally cooked the meal for came over again, she assumed it was a new batch. After another cooking extravaganza, he had a pan of cooked carrots locked inside his oven for months. (When he finally removed them, they no longer resembled carrots.) 

Expounding on his apartment issues, our original confessor (the one who made out on a pile of dirty laundry) said, "My kitchen is a foot wide -- the refrigerator door won't open. The bathroom walls are peeling [example at left], and it's small and dank." He has, however, dated people while living there, and had a year-long relationship with one woman -- though, he says, "the first time she visited, it was almost a deal breaker. We had a very strong vibe, but that was the only thing that kept her from bolting. She said, 'I haven't seen a place like this since college.' She was 31."

Despite what might be the perceived stereotype, it's not just guys who are dirty, messy, or forced to deal with infestations. Recently, the Hairpin documented the struggle of a 23-year-old Austin woman whose room (pictured below) was in such a state that she couldn't bear to let her man friend stay there for the night. "I was like, you can't come into the room," she told The Atlantic Wire. "So I brought my sleeping bag out [to the living room]. I don't let anyone in my room. He knows I'm a little bit quirky, so he wasn't completely weirded out." Nonetheless, "he hasn't come over since."

That low point caused her to email Jolie Kerr, who writes the Ask a Clean Person column for the Hairpin, for a cleanup plan. "I'm still in the process of doing it," she told us recently. "I made my bed -- I hadn't even had sheets on my bed. I could probably have someone in my room at this point, but I recently had another guy come over, and we ended up hooking up on my couch. I guess I was still embarrassed." (Update: She's now an inspiration to the rest of us, having cleaned her apartment into spic-and-span eat-off-the-floor condition.)

We spoke to Kerr to get a read on just how bad the rest of our messy urban habits and habitats are. Are guys the main perpetrators here? How gross are we? And is it really our fault, or just the fault of our less-than-ideal living situations? Kerr said, "Not caring for your home is not gender-specific at all. People are space-challenged in cities. That means our homes are more cluttered and harder to clean, and also, we live in a take-out culture. That breeds a lot of grossness, cartons left around and left in refrigerators. It’s also the dirt of cities, the dust and grime through our windows and heating systems and the amount of disgustingness we’re tracking in, the streets covered in pee and whatever. It’s really gross out there. And we’re not in our homes as much as other people are. Bars are our living room; sometimes our homes are just where we sleep and shower, and keeping them nice is not a priority."

In New York City Kerr most frequently notices people not cleaning their bathrooms or tubs or refrigerators -- "doesn't it bother you that those places—where you eat or get clean—are dirty?" she asks. (Er. Good point. She assures us she doesn't judge.)

We then turned to Jeff Wilser, author of The Man Cave Book, "a tribute to great and glorious man spaces and the craftsmen behind them" for his expertise. A gross bachelor (or bachelorette) pad is "the flip side of The Man [Woman?] Cave coin," he told us. "Theoretically, a Man Cave should be a palace (or garage) of awesomeness. But given the real-estate constraints of New York, sometimes a Man Cave is actually just what it sounds like -- a claustrophobic den of dirty laundry, stray bottle caps, and shower stalls that demand flip-flops."

However, he says, such an apartment "doesn't have to be a relationship killer. The trick is to spin it in a funny, self-deprecating way -- implying that it's temporary, you get that it's ridiculous, and you don't actually have the interior design aesthetic of Beavis and Butthead. A small apartment in a lousy building doesn't necessarily say anything about someone's character -- that's just the breaks of New York, and all it means is that they aren't rich. If someone's turned off by a tiny pad, that might say more about them (materialism?) than the resident." However, "if the guy makes no effort and has never laid his fingers on a toilet scrubber, well,  the odds are against repeat visits."
Yet minus the serious neat-freaks among us, we seem to give a lot of leeway to the sloppy budding hoarders -- if they have good personalities! The 23-year-old of the sleeping bag story tells us that, in college, she saw dirty living situations that grossed her out. She dealt with them because, "You don't want to end a relationship just because someone's messy." Then there are those who believe, like our friend who confessed to his dirty apartment blocking his hookup, that "some girls, against all their best instincts, kinda dig going over to a shitty apartment." Translation: This is actually technique. Of that, Kerr was dubious, saying, "I guess I can see it if you’re a woman looking for a project; it’s the same way that women are attracted to bad boys, they want to be the one who changes them. But I can’t imagine that there’s someone actually attracted to the mess...maybe someone is really attracted to that." Wilser responded, simply, "As for women potentially preferring terrible apartments, I think that's a stretch."
For those who find the objects of their affection not particularly enamored of their particular living situation, or who, perhaps, are starting to get disgusted with it themselves, there's no time like the present: Bob Tedeschi, writing in The New York Times, has already proclaimed it the perfect time for spring cleaning. If you find his extensive tips too intense, aim a little lower. Over at the Hairpin, Kerr and Co. just want you to make your bed for the month of March. Baby (cleaning) steps. For the sake of your romantic life.


This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.